Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Teachers that Matter

Upon reading Henry Seidel Canby's Alma Mater: The Gothic Age in the American College I felt compelled to follow his example and reflect on one or two great teachers that influenced me. At one point I wrote some lines about Bonnie Clark, the professor who introduced me to forensic oratory and pointed out the path that led to my career (more words for her will find their way to this venue). Now I'll tell you about another professor whose voice I hear when I enter my own classroom, years after leaving his presence. He was the scariest teacher I ever had.

It's entirely inaccurate to say that his name doesn't matter. It does. And yet I don't think my memories accurately reproduce the experience of taking his class. Those recollections are so worn and subject to the failings of age that my attempts to connect them to a name would seem unfair. It might suffice for you to recall the prep school mysticism of Dead Poets Society to get a general idea of his teaching. I can almost see him leaping upon tables to shout, to exhort, to enthrall us about some seemingly arcane topic, one transformed into living energy through his words. Truthfully I don't know if he actually ever jumped on a table. But that's how I remember him.

This professor was dagger sharp, and he could be merciless to the unprepared. I remember one student expounding about her problems as justification for failure to complete an assignment. I don't recall the details: something about job hassles, family obligations, physical ailments, or some combination. Having taught for almost a decade myself, I've heard countless similar stories. And my instincts generally lead me to some mixture of compassion and utility. This is a genuine problem, I'll sometimes say, and it can be solved. This professor said something quite different though. He didn't sneer, nor did he cackle. But there was something fixed and unmoving in the precision of his words.

Perhaps, he said, now is not the best time to take college courses.

He was right, of course. Yet I will never forget the sense of air being sucked from my lungs when I heard that retort. I didn't know teachers could say that sort of thing.

Maintaining a high grade in his class demanded constant vigilance. To illustrate, let me provide some context. My typical class grade is composed of assignments whose point values add to 500. A major essay might be worth twenty percent of the semester grade, topping out at 100 points. But the course total remains so far in the distance that many students don't fret about doing poorly now and again. My professor, however, offered no such balm. In his class (as I recall), one could earn a total of 100 points. Every jot, every mark, every error warranted a possible subtraction from that total. Throughout a semester, a student could see her grade decline inexorably from A to B to points below. One could not hide in mathematical haze. I remember double-checking and triple-checking each essay I wrote for him -- what should presumably be a commonplace corrective -- out of fear of that steadily falling grade.

I loved his class, even as I feared his judgment. This professor demanded much from me, not out of some false personal affirmation but simply because he set high standards for all his students. To him, teaching was more than a job. Strangely enough, though, his energetic classroom manner, his lengthy recitations about a beloved topic, and his utter unwillingness to coddle his charges, never seemed to translate into his office hours. When I visited him outside of class he seemed smaller, more distant. He was helpful enough but not as vividly present as he was, as it were, on stage. The classroom was his domain. There, he seemed bigger than the room.

A few years ago I emailed him, describing the influence he had upon my choice of professorial persona. After all I have been known to shout, to exhort, and even to startle my students. And though I feel that my teaching is a poor substitute for the experiences I had with him and other significant figures in my history I try to affirm the best of what he taught me. He replied to that email, but not as I would have hoped. While he was a bright and colorful (and sometimes terrifying) part of my personal and professional development, I was just one of many students who passed through his door. Such is the nature, I suppose, of nostalgia. Those who discover some sort of greatness within themselves and those who still have yet to accomplish that task may share the same space, but they seldom share much time.

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